On-the-Record Conference Call on Afghanistan
11:55 A.M. EDT
MR. PRICE: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining the call today as we wanted to convene a group to discuss the announcement the President made this morning regarding Afghanistan.
First, some ground rules. This call will be on the record, but it will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. So we would ask that you please not tweet or otherwise use this material until the call concludes.
We have several senior administration officials on the line with us this morning. We have Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco. We have White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. We have the acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Laurel Miller. We have Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Christy Abizaid. And we have Peter Lavoy, who is the Senior Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan here at the National Security Council.
So again, this call is on the record, but it is embargoed until its conclusion. And with that, I will turn it over to Lisa Monaco to start.
MS. MONACO: Thanks very much, Ned. And thank you, everyone, for joining the call. Let me just provide a little context obviously, and describe some of what the President articulated this morning.
Obviously, the President last year announced that our combat mission in Afghanistan has ended. And since the beginning of this year, obviously since the beginning of 2015, the Afghans have been responsible themselves for the security of their country and their people.
The U.S. mission there and the NATO mission transitioned to one that is a noncombat mission, and that continues today and will continue in the future. Our mission there is noncombat, and it is one that focuses currently on our CT mission and on training, advising, and assisting the Afghan security forces.
We obviously have a national security interest, as the President said today, in making sure that Afghanistan can't be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again, and to ensure we’ve got a capable partner in the Afghan security forces. And that's really the basis for the President’s announcement today.
So obviously, he discussed this morning the results of what has been an extensive, lengthy review over the course of a number of months that included regular contact with his commanders in the field, with President Ghani, with CEO Abdullah, and of course, his entire national security team in Washington.
The results of that review which they announced today, this morning, and that is that the United States will maintain our current posture, which is 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. And that will be our posture through most of 2016, through most of next year.
But instead of going down to an embassy-only presence in Kabul by the end of 2016, we will maintain 5,500 troops in Kabul and in Bagram, and at bases in the east and in the south of Afghanistan, specifically maintaining bases in Jalalabad in the east and in Kandahar in the south.
What’s important to stress here is that our mission is not going to change. We’ve got a mission now, as I said, and we’ll continue to have two narrow missions. One is, of course, our counterterrorism mission. We're going to continue to go after al Qaeda to deal with terrorist threats that present to the United States and any resurgence of al Qaeda, we want to be in a posture to address that. And we're going to continue to build up and train, advise, and assist the Afghan forces to ensure we’ve got a partner there. This is entirely consistent with what the President has talked about as being in our national security interest, which is to have a network of sustainable partnerships around the globe -- from South Asia to the Sahel.
So the President’s announcement today is the result of a very deliberate process that began earlier this year, after the national unity government was formed, after the Afghans entered into a bilateral security agreement with us and asked us to stay and to continue to assist and build this enduring security partnership.
That has been the crux of the discussions that the President has had over many months, including just yesterday with President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah.
So that's the context and the outlines of what the President announced this morning, and I think we’ve got a number of folks who are prepared to take some questions.
Q Great, thanks very much. Can Lisa or others on the call explain specifically what you think the 5,500 soldiers will be able to accomplish who stay there? And can you also address the political ramifications of this decision? Will this help Democrats in the 2016 election? How do you expect to respond to Republican critics?
MS. MONACO: So I’m not going to address the politics. I’ll leave that to others. But, Jeff, let me just give you some more on what the 5,500 will accomplish, and my colleagues may want to chime in.
Obviously, they will be focused on the two missions I described -- going after al Qaeda and terrorist threats that emerge, and making sure that we don’t have a resurgence of al Qaeda, as the President talked about this morning. Due to military efforts by the Pakistanis, there has been displacement of al Qaeda into Afghanistan. We’re obviously concerned and watching carefully the emergence of militants who want to affiliate with ISIL. But we have a national security interest in making sure that there can’t be a safe haven in Afghanistan. So the 5,500 troops are going to be able to support the counterterrorism operation.
But importantly, they’re also going to work with our Afghan partners in very targeted ways in terms of identifying places where we can provide maximum amount of training, advice and assistance -- so for instance, with the Afghan air operations and working with their special forces -- so where are the best places that we can provide the most targeted assistance to build up that capable partner force.
MS. MILLER: And just to add -- this is Laurel Miller from the State Department. In addition to the 5,500 U.S. troops that the President has now announced, we anticipate that there will be additional NATO troops remaining in the country in that time period. We’re engaged in a process now of consulting with our NATO allies and partners about the exact contours of their presence and the numbers. But it is our expectation there will be additional numbers, in particular for the train, advise, and assist mission.
MR. EARNEST: And, Jeff, this is Josh. As it relates to the political consequences of this decision, I’m confident that there will be plenty of people offering up their opinion on this. I can tell you that politics played absolutely no role in the President’s decision-making here. The only fact that the President considered in making this decision were the core national security interests of the United States.
Q I’m wondering if you could talk about the long game, because already people are saying that this is essentially a handoff from this President to the next President; that this problem becomes the problem of whoever is his successor. And I wonder what you see down the road, especially given the fact that in that shouted question the President indicated again that you expect -- that he expects that there will continue to be adjustments down the road.
MS. MONACO: So, Chris, I’ll start on that. This is very much about the long game, as the President talked about in his remarks -- the long game being the national security interests of the United States. He says, while I’m President, I’m not going to have a safe haven for terrorists and walk away from the Afghans and let that situation deteriorate such that it poses a threat to the United States.
And it’s about the long game in the sense of having a capable partner. The Afghans have invited [Please add: “us?”] in, want us to stay, want us to work with them to build up their forces. And this is part of the President’s goal and strategy of having sustainable partners around the world where terrorist threats could emerge.
MR. EARNEST: Chris, this is Josh. The only thing I would add to that is that critics who suggest that the President is merely handing off a problem to someone else utterly fails to account for the situation that the President inherited when he came into office in 2009. Over the last seven years, we have made a lot of important progress in advancing the national security interests of the United States in this region of the world -- a region of the world from which emanated the most violent terrorist attack against the United States in our nation’s history.
The fact of the matter is, since 2009, a number of important milestones have been reached, including -- I’ll just name a couple of them -- the decimation of core al Qaeda that had previously operated with impunity in Afghanistan and in the region. And secondly, in the last year, we have witnessed the first democratic transfer of power inside of Afghanistan in that nation’s long history. Those are two examples of the substantial progress that has been made. Let me just point out that that progress would not have been possible without many of the decisions that the President has had to make over the last seven years or so, and that progress would certainly not have been possible without the impressive commitment and, in some cases, tremendous sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
And the situation that the next President, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, will encounter in Afghanistan is a dramatically improved one when compared to the situation that President Obama inherited in January of 2009.
MS. MILLER: If I could just add, this decision ensures continuity of our efforts to solve the problems in Afghanistan, not continuity of the problem.
Q So talk a little bit, if you wouldn’t mind, about what lessons, if any, were learned from the Iraq withdrawal in terms of thinking about this one. I mean, how much did the unanticipated result or unanticipated aftermath of leaving in 2011 figure into this? You keep emphasizing in effect, without mentioning Iraq, the differences by saying we’ve got a government we can work with, we’ve got a legal basis for which to keep troops there, and so forth. Talk a little bit about the connection, if you would, or lessons.
MS. MONACO: I mean, I guess I’d just start, Peter, by saying we’ve got an interest in being in Afghanistan and, as my colleagues have said, both to obviously address the counterterrorism threats and to ensure we’re continuing with the progress of building up the partnership in the Afghan security forces and bringing stability to the Afghan people. We’ve got an interest in Iraq in working with a partner force to push back ISIL, and that’s what we’re doing currently at the invitation of the Abadi government. Once they signaled and indicated they were able to form a more inclusive government, as you’ll recall, that’s what the President said last summer would be the critical factor in whether or not we would go in and try and work with them.
So we’ve got interests in both places, both for stability in the region -- we’ve got Jordan on the border with Iraq, et cetera -- and we’ve got counterterrorism interests. So there’s a number of similarities. You’re absolutely right, the differences are clear from 2011. The Afghan government here has asked us to stay, has invited us in, wants to work with us, and wants to have an enduring partnership.
MR. EARNEST: Hey, Peter, this is Josh. I agree wholeheartedly obviously with what Lisa has said. I think that’s the most important point. I think the other thing that’s important not to get lost here is the other common theme here is the President’s recognition and the lesson learned from actually our experience in Iraq in 2003, which is that the United States will not be able to impose a military solution on the problems in either of these countries, but rather our goal is to build up the capacity of forces -- local forces in both countries to confront the security challenges in their respective countries.
And that kind of effort to build up the capacity of their security forces requires effective cooperation with the central government in both those countries. And in 2011, we didn’t have that effective cooperation with the Iraqi central government. The situation in Iraq has changed primarily because the central government in Iraq has changed, and we are able to more effectively work with them to build up the capacity of the Iraqis. And that is having a corresponding impact -- a positive one -- on the national security interests of the United States and Iraq, and that’s the current trajectory in Afghanistan as well.
Q Hi, thanks for doing the call. My question is regarding the troops that will be remaining in Afghanistan after 2016. Of the 5,500 soldiers who -- servicemembers who will be tasked for the train-and-assist mission and the CT mission, can you give us an idea of what the breakdown will be? If additional NATO countries will be providing troops of their own to assist with the training mission, does that mean that most of the remaining American forces will be dedicated to CT?
And also on the sort of rules of engagement or guidelines for operations post-2016, do you expect those to continue to be what they are today in terms of the situations in which American forces are permitted to conduct airstrikes, for example? Will this continue to be what it is now? Thanks.
MS. ABIZAID: Hi, this is Christy Abizaid. So I think that the apportionment across the two narrow mission sets that we have -- the TAA and the combat mission -- for the post-2016 mission is still left to be decided and something that we’re going to engage with our NATO partners on to determine what’s most appropriate based on the kind of contributions that they’re willing to sustain, and the kinds of investment and the places where we need to invest in Afghan force capability.
But I guess one thing I would want to emphasize is that the CT mission and the TAA mission are really interactive missions that redound the benefit of our counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan and in the region. And so really trying to separate out sort of which ones are focused on which particular effort probably belies a little bit the important interactive element of the CT partnership that we’re going to continue to maintain with our Afghan partners in addition to those CT capabilities that we want to maintain for our own unilateral interests.
In terms of sort of the rules of engagement and authorities, I think that we’re very comfortable with our ability to protect ourselves, our ability to pursue our counterterrorism objectives. And those cases in which we need to support the Afghans, do that, but do that fairly judiciously. And so we’ll be continuing to evaluate the progress in this fighting season and the next fighting season to determine if the current rules of engagement and use of our capabilities in theater is something that should persist beyond the post-2016 environment.
Q Thanks very much for the call. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about why the counterterror effort and the training effort were not successful in the timeframe that was envisaged, and why you think that a year or two more will make any difference.
MS. MONACO: I’m sorry, can you say why -- can you repeat the first part of your question again?
Q Why were the counterterror effort and the training effort not successful in the timeframe originally envisaged?
MS. MONACO: I guess I would not agree with the premise. What the President talked about is having a presence there that would enable us to continue our counterterrorism operation, and continue to build up the Afghan security forces.
Look, they just went through their first fighting season. He’s determined to keep our current posture there for the remainder obviously of this year, and through most of 2016, to enable to work with them to increase their capabilities through the next fighting season.
So I don’t think anyone ever intended that the job, so to speak, would be finished. We always said that we’d continue to have a presence there, and what the President announced today was a change, obviously, in his previous statement about when we would go down to an embassy-only presence. And that really is a function, as Josh and others have highlighted -- we’ve got a capable and willing partner who’s invited us in. And that was not the case -- we didn’t have the national unity government formed, we didn’t have the bilateral security agreement.
So those are facts on the ground that affect our decision-making and how we’re going about continuing to assess the posture of our forces.
MR. EARNEST: I think the other thing I would point out is that in the President’s prepared remarks earlier this morning, he reiterated at least three or four times that the mission of our men and women in Afghanistan will not change. It will be focused on offering training and advice to the Afghan military, and carrying out some counterterrorism operations.
The fact that the President wants to extend those operations and to continue that strategy is actually an indication that it’s working and that we’re seeing progress. I think if the President had come out today and announced a dramatic change to our policy, I think you would have a stronger argument to make in questioning whether or not we were seeing the kind of progress that we would like to see.
Q Hi, thanks. There was a brief mention of some involvement in Afghanistan by these people sympathetic to ISIS, the Islamic State. My first question -- first part of the question is, how significant was the emergence of those people in this decision? And secondly, does the President continue to think he has legal authority to do this under the original AUMF? Or -- he has talked in the past occasionally about revising or repealing that -- has the timetable on that changed?
MS. MONACO: So on the first part of your question, if I heard you correctly asking about what is the potential emergence of ISIL or those who want to affiliate with ISIL, what impact did that have on this decision. What I would say to that is the core missions that the President announced previously will not change -- our CT and TAA missions -- and within that CT mission, the focus is on going after al Qaeda, the remnants of al Qaeda and anybody who could pose a threat to the homeland. We're going to be very focused in watching what happens with ISIL in Afghanistan. Right now, it’s militants who are largely disaffected with other groups. But that's a factor in terms of if it presents a threat to the homeland; we're obviously going to be attentive to that. But the core mission on the counterterrorism side is going after remnants of al Qaeda.
And on your AUMF question, we submitted last year a proposed AUMF to address ISIL, as you know. And Congress has not taken that up. But we continue to operate under the 2001 AUMF where we need those authorities to go after those individuals who pose a threat to the United States from whether it’s Yemen or Somalia or other locations.
Q Hi. Looking in your crystal ball, obviously the President was fairly open-ended in talking about potential future changes to the timeline and numbers of troops staying in Afghanistan. How long could this go on? Is there a new goal for an actual withdrawal date of all U.S. troops?
MR. EARNEST: Angela, the President in his statement today acknowledged that he has made the decision that he believes is in the best interest of our national security, both in terms of continuing to build the capacity of Afghan national security forces and continuing to have counterterrorism capabilities that we can use to keep the American people safe.
I think the question you're asking is ultimately one that will be answered by the Commander-in-Chief. I think the point that I’ll reiterate is that the next Commander-in-Chief, whether that person is a Democrat or Republican, will inherit a situation in which the question that you've asked is much easier to answer. When the President took office in 2009, it was difficult to envision what a -- difficult to envision a scenario in which a significant reduction of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be consistent with our national security interests.
But the fact is we’ve made so much progress over the last seven years in decimating core al Qaeda and building up the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and supporting a central government that could complete the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s long history is an indication that that question for the next Commander-in-Chief will be much easier to answer.
Q Hey, thank you. The Intercept reported today that the drone program in Afghanistan is often killing more unintended targets than intended ones. And I’m curious how big a role you think the drone program will play going forward, and if you're worried that there will be any blowback as a result of that.
And then sort of separately, on the issue of corruption, is there anything being done to deal with the corruption of the Afghan government, which does seem to be driving a lot of the unrest there?
MS. MILLER: This is Laurel Miller from the State Department. We continue to work closely with the Afghan government in its efforts to combat corruption. Obviously, this is a very challenging problem, as it is in many countries around the world. It’s not unique to Afghanistan.
But I can say that we now have a government in Afghanistan that is very seriously committed to this issue, has put in place a number of new mechanisms for rooting out corruption in procurement and in other areas. I think we have to expect that it will still be a difficult problem to confront for some time ahead, but it is an important area of focus for the Afghan government and for us. And we do, for the first time in a long time, see the beginning of some progress in this area.
MR. EARNEST: Let me do -- in terms of the first question, the President has obviously made a policy decision to try to be as transparent as possible about our counterterrorism operations all around the world. And the fact is, all those counterterrorism operations go to great lengths to limit civilian casualties. The United States certainly goes as far as any other government in factoring in the need to prevent civilian casualties when carrying out counterterrorism operations. That certainly stands in pretty stark contrast to organizations like the Taliban that explicitly carry out operations against innocent civilians as part of a coordinated strategy to foment violence and unrest. So there clearly is a different approach here.
There has been plenty of reporting to indicate that our ongoing ability to boost the capacity of Afghan national security forces is good for the broader stability of the country but also can be helpful in pursuit of our counterterrorism operation. And that does have a corresponding impact on the ability to reduce the military -- U.S. and NATO military presence inside of Afghanistan, to reduce the instances in which that military presence comes into contact with civilians in any sort of setting.
The final thing is the President also acknowledged in his prepared remarks today that the United States or anybody else will not be successful in imposing a military solution on the problems that plague Afghanistan, even when it comes to counterterrorism, and that’s why the President made the explicit reference to the need for progress in the ongoing reconciliation process. And that obviously is something that we support and would like to see more of.
Q I wanted to see if you guys could address -- maybe this is more for Josh -- how different this dynamic is from what the President had hoped it would be when he came into office. I know he said that he isn’t disappointed in having to make this decision, but isn’t he at least somewhat disheartened that he’ll leave office with troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan and some of his key promises made in 2008 are not going to be fulfilled?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Carol, I actually think that when it comes -- particularly when it comes to what we have done inside of Afghanistan, the President has advanced the vision that he laid out in his 2008 campaign. You’ll recall that much of the rhetoric in the 2008 campaign was that the United States had taken our eye off the ball when it comes to confronting al Qaeda and that there hadn’t been the kind of robust commitment of military and diplomatic resources to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the broader region.
And the President, in the earliest days of his administration, began a process that resulted in the formulation of a clear strategy to ramp up our focus and our investment inside of Afghanistan to go after al Qaeda, to confront them directly, and to try to build up the capacity of Afghan national security forces.
And since that time, we’ve made a lot of important progress that I’ve outlined before in terms of the democratic transfer of power inside of Afghanistan and obviously the important progress that has been made against core al Qaeda that operated in Afghanistan to include the successful operation to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield. That progress would not have been possible without the decisions that the President made early on.
And since that time, because of that progress, we have been able to begin to reduce our military presence inside of Afghanistan. And certainly when you consider that the peak was north of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that what we’re talking about now, a little less than 10,000, represents a lot of important progress.
So the President did follow through on the promise that he made to confront core al Qaeda, to try to make the situation in Afghanistan better for the national security of the United States. There’s no doubt that he has made that progress. And he has done all of that while, here at the end of his presidency, dramatically reducing the number of American military personnel that are in Afghanistan. I think the President also acknowledged in his prepared remarks today that there’s a lot more work that needs to get done, both in terms of building up the capacity of Afghan national security forces, building up the capacity of government institutions inside of Afghanistan so they can better provide for their security situation, making a lot more progress when it comes to ongoing reconciliation efforts.
And so this is more work that has to get done. And yes, this is work that will have to also be done by whomever the next President is. But the scale of the challenges that the next President will face are much smaller than the scale of the challenges that this country faced when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office in January of 2009.
Q In his remarks today, the President said he knows this means that some of the troops will rotate back to Afghanistan. I was wondering what decisions have been made for units who are redeploying, returning to Afghanistan. And is there any option for troops in Afghanistan to be extended?
MS. ABIZAID: Thanks for the question, this is Christy Abizaid from the Department of Defense. I think that the 5.5K footprint that we’re looking at for 2017 and how we best fill that out across the U.S. forces is something that we’re going to leave room for our commanders to decide in consultation with the Service Chiefs, and based on the kinds of capability that we think we’ll need in partnership with the Afghans and really to tailor to the Afghan force.
So I don’t really have any more information for you on sort of how the deployment cycle will be affected, other than to say that, yes, this is a more significant commitment than we were planning on, but one in which I think that the Secretary feels strongly is in our national security interest to pursue.
MR. PRICE: Thanks so much, everyone. Just to recap the ground rules, this call is on the record and we’ll consider the embargo now lifted. So thank you for joining.
12:28 P.M. EDT